The city is scorching trees all over Chicago, and no one in a position to stop it is doing a damn thing. That’s what Madeline Kanner and other environmentalists believe, as they spread the word about a new machine that may be seriously wounding trees as it repaves the streets. “It takes a generation to grow a tree, but only a few minutes to destroy it,” says Kanner. “This resurfacing machine is part of a multiple environmental assault that’s destroying our trees.”

Such fears are ungrounded, city officials counter. They say Mayor Daley should be praised, not criticized, for having the vision to adopt relatively inexpensive and environmentally safe methods for street resurfacing.

“I hope this is not a negative story, because these machines are a big improvement over the old way streets were resurfaced,” says Craig Wolf, a spokesman for the city’s Transportation Department, which oversees resurfacing efforts. “Some leaves have turned brown, but it’s an aesthetic problem. The leaves will come back. We have never lost a tree due to resurfacing.”

The issue is a bit embarrassing given that Daley takes great pride in his love of trees. Since he took office roughly 400,000 trees have been planted along parkways and in playgrounds and parks, part of what officials call “green-streeting.”

“I can assure you that this administration is very committed to planting trees,” says Ken Davis, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Environment. “We’re planting along side streets, arterial streets, and on vaulted sidewalks where in the past it was impossible to have trees.”

But many environmentalists disparage such efforts, sarcastically calling Daley “Mayor Trees.” As they see it, once the trees are planted they’re rarely watered, and then they’re subjected to a series of assaults, including barrages of salt, that eventually kill them.

Moreover, the administration, eager to increase the tax base, has encouraged developers to uproot trees to make way for condominiums and shopping malls on undeveloped land throughout the city. Not once has Daley opposed a project on the grounds that it would deprive citizens of greenery or open space.

“They plant trees, which they don’t take care of, and then they destroy other trees through development and oversalting,” says Bob Wulkowicz, a northwest-side environmentalist. “The net effect is catastrophic. We are light years away from a serious overview of the state of trees in Chicago.”

As Wulkowicz and Kanner see it, the culprit in the recent outbreak of tree scorching is something called a scarification machine–a 100-foot-long apparatus that removes, recycles, and spreads asphalt as it proceeds along a street. Over the summer and into the fall the machine will enable city work crews to repave 250 miles of residential streets.

“The old method of street repaving wasn’t environmentally friendly, because it left you with the problem of recycling the old asphalt,” says Wolf. “This machine eliminates any need for getting rid of old asphalt, because it recycles as it goes. It’s quick and efficient.”

But it also emits a lot of heat, which singes the leaves of trees hanging over the streets, as Kanner noticed one day not long ago while out walking her German shepherd. “I realized I was walking beneath brown tunnels of burnt branches. It made me sick–50 to 80 percent of the trees had been harmed. Young trees planted over the last year were the most severely affected. I doubt they will ever see green again. I even saw a small tree with an incinerated robin’s nest.”

Hardest hit in her Albany Park neighborhood were trees along the 4400 to 4700 blocks of North Sacramento, the 2800 block of West Agatite, and the 2900 to 3100 blocks of West Eastwood. “The trees along these streets were brown, and the streets had recently been resurfaced. The correlation was obvious.”

City officials say the trees are not permanently damaged, and residents can hasten their recovery by watering them. But Kanner and Wulkowicz contend that burning the leaves disturbs the complex process by which trees store the sugars, starches, and other nutrients they need to survive winter. Most experts say that at the very least the matter merits more study.

“You would have to look and see the condition of buds and twigs before you could say how much the trees have been damaged,” says Gary Watson, a researcher at the Morton Arboretum.

Kanner thought it would be useful to alert City Hall to the problem. “I thought they would appreciate a call from a concerned citizen. I wanted to say that a simple heat shield placed on the machine would solve the problem. I thought I might get a word of thanks.” Instead she got what most concerned citizens get when they approach city government–a door slammed in the face. Or, to update the metaphor, a wall of voice mail.

The first person she called was a deputy commissioner in the Department of Environment named Suzanne Hoerr, who oversees the city’s landscaping efforts. “I got her name from a neighbor who works in the Park District and knows the right people to call,” says Kanner.

Kanner called Hoerr twice, leaving two detailed messages on her voice mail, but got no return call. “I asked the receptionist if Hoerr was in the office, and she said she was. “I called Hoerr’s secretary twice–wanting to talk to a real, live human and not a machine–and each time I got the secretary’s voice mail, which bounced me back to the receptionist, who finally told me that the secretary was too busy to talk to me. That really made me upset. It’s pretty bad when the secretary won’t take the time to talk to you. I work as a secretary, and I would never say anything like that. If I’m overloaded, I’ll take your number and call you back.”

Rebuffed by Environment, Kanner turned to the Bureau of Forestry. “I got the young man who was on phone duty. He said he was ‘Kevin in forestry.’ He didn’t give a last name. I said, “Kevin, as a forester you must know what damage this heat does to trees.’ He said we can’t stop the repaving, but he would log my complaint in a computer and send someone out to inspect the trees. That’s the last I heard from forestry.”

Undaunted, Kanner decided to visit her alderman–Richard Mell of the 33rd Ward. “I went to his office on a Monday night, when he receives constituents. I brought my dog, because I wanted to be sure that Mell would remember who I was. It was a pretty busy night with all the usual pols and ward heeler types hanging around. After a while they ushered me into the inner sanctum, and there was Mell. He said, ‘What a beautiful animal.’ And I said, ‘I’m here to talk about the trees.’ I knew if I didn’t jump right to the point I could spend my time talking about the dog. I said, ‘I want to make sure the dog has a tree to piddle on.'”

According to Kanner, Mell rhapsodized about the wonders of the scarification machine, while assuring her that the leaves would grow back. “He said I should look at the 4400 block of North Francisco–all the leaves had grown back there. I said that block has mature maples and that the trees along some of the other streets are younger, smaller, and more vulnerable to the machine’s heat. He responded by saying he was [guest] hosting a radio talk show the next day, and that if I wanted more fun with this issue I should give him a call and he’d put me on the air.”

But when Kanner called the talk show Mell was talking about another issue and his producer never put Kanner through. “I sat at the bottom of the stairs and combed my cat and ran things through my mind. It’s a statement about government when the best you can hope for is a chance to vent your frustration on a radio talk show.”

Still, Kanner wasn’t ready to give up. She wrote a letter to Daley, sent by certified mail, pleading with him to stop the scorching. “[A city without trees] would be uninhabitable,” she wrote. “Trees release oxygen and recycle water. They absorb noise and carbon dioxide. Trees are necessary to the life of the planet, and they are beautiful living organisms which do not deserve to be treated in this fashion. Please answer my letter and tell me what you will do to save our neighborhood trees.”

Daley didn’t respond to her letter, though not because he doesn’t care about her cause, city officials explain. More likely Kanner’s letter was lost in the pile of mail Daley receives every day. She’ll undoubtedly get her reply sometime soon.

“I apologize on Hoerr’s behalf for not returning [Kanner’s] phone calls,” says Davis. “I’ve seen the phone messages on Hoerr’s desk–she gets about 150 calls a day. This sounds like one of those awful things when a citizen’s complaint falls off the edge because it goes to the wrong place. The next time this happens she should call 744-5000 and ask to be connected to the Bureau of Forestry. And they will have an inspector come out to take a look at the trees.”

When that inspector would arrive, no one knows for certain. Kanner still hasn’t heard from the inspector “Kevin in forestry” promised to send several weeks ago.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.